I have to be honest. Historically, my aversion to musical theater is rivaled only by my aversion to The Black Eyed Peas.
Yet, sitting by myself in a theater full of Girl Scouts, tour groups and loyal locals (some of whom attend four, five times a week), I'm clapping and grinning like an idiot mere seconds into the first song of Savannah Live! while a cast clad in matching jeans, graphic tees and studded vests belt out the shoot-me-if-I-hear-it-one-more-time hit "I Gotta Feeling" with all their might.
The slouchy boy seated next to me, whose parents clearly dragged him here, is suddenly teetering on the tip of his seat, clutching his heart.
And like Will.i.am, I, too, have a feeling. Tonight's gonna be a good, good night at The Savannah Theatre.
The thing is, The Savannah Theatre cast has performed this show, peppered with oldies, Broadway staples and Top 40, literally thousands of times.
A mere glimpse of their packed calendar may suggest that it's impossible for the small troupe to keep up the energy level, yet every member performs like it's their first season with genuine smiles, tight choreography and gracious audience interaction.
"It's a weird fellowship experience," guitarist Josh Holley says.
"You get on stage, and you're sick with pneumonia or something, but the minute that curtain opens and you see the families enjoying it - and luckily there's this talented cast around you - you can feed off each other's energy.
"It helps to keep it fresh. It's not like you're just going through the motions."
On Chippewa Square, right beyond the iconic "Savannah" marquee, which is usually shielded by towering tour buses, there is an overlooked treasure, a tight-knit group of dedicated musicians and actors who are still baffled that they get paid to do what they love, who raise their kids together, who call each other family.
IF YOU GO
The cast of Savannah Theatre performs several nights a week at 222 Bull St. For more information, go to savannahtheatre.com
"You're gonna see some body parts," Huxsie Scott warns me.
It's 30 minutes until curtain call, and the Savannah Theatre's women's dressing room is a whirlwind of pre-show activity.
The air is dank with hair spray, loose powder, slowly warming hot rollers, and humming with lip-trilling warmups as the cast makes elbow room on counters cluttered with sequins and tubes of lipstick and mascara.
For most, it's been their evening routine for a decade or more.
Gretchen Stelzer's 7-year-old daughter, Addison, a diva in her own right (she performed in Savannah Theatre's "Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat") thoughtfully brushes her hair alongside her mother, a cast member of 11 years, while discussing favorite colors with Scott ("I'm a purple fan, too," she agrees enthusiastically).
They may move quickly throughout the small space, but the expected sense of last-minute frenzy is replaced by seasoned ease - makeup time is brisk, methodical.
"You just need to be on stage when it's the right time, so whatever it takes you personally to get to that point," Shannon Zaller says.
Eyes fixed to the mirror, she cocks her head toward Scott, who sits calmly with her hands in her lap, still wearing the clothes she arrived in - a breezy orange dress all the women compliment in turn.
"She just looks like she's 20," Zaller jests. "She gets to pick whether or not she wears makeup on stage. The rest of us have to work hard to look that good."
As a living legend of Lowcountry jazz and blues with a career spanning 41 years, the last 11 spent as featured vocalist at The Savannah Theatre, Scott rightfully gets to call her own shots.
The Savannah Theatre gig was a significant career shift.
"I had a 'come to Jesus' talk with my pastor ... because at one point in time, I did Top 40 R&B, and then I met Ben Tucker," she said. Scott was the recently deceased bassist's featured vocalist for many years.
"I did that until there was a change in my heart and in my spirit, and I thought the best way to show God how much I appreciated that was just not to sing any secular music. I had stopped doing any from 1987 until I met (the Savannah Theatre cast) in 2002," she says.
"My pastor let me understand that it's about the messages you give. And this is a G-rated show. People can come and bring their babies, and the kids love it. They don't feel like it's above their head, and the older people don't feel like they're being talked down to. It's generally good fun."
"I always feel like I have the perfect balance here," she says. "I feel cool, but I know I'm not going to be compromised."
She flips through the costume rack and finds a minidress as an example, modeling it over her clothes.
"See? I can totally wear tight red sequins, but I'm covered and I feel like it's not trashy. It's sexy and fun and mature. I could bring my kids to (the show), teenagers, 20-year-olds, 40-year-olds and my grandma, and everyone would enjoy it."
All about family
The cast's families are often in the theater. Addison "would come every night if she could," Stelzer says.
Addison is the oldest of 14 kids in the theater family.
"There's been 13 kids born in three years," Stelzer says.
"It's in the water," Scott advises. "At the Christmas show, there's always a baby Jesus from among us - sometimes a baby Jes-ette. Thanks to these wonderful girls and their fertile selves, they've already given us the next generation."
"They love the music," Stelzer says. "And I think that's it's really fun that they get to see that you can make a living at it if you work hard."
Stelzer just had her fourth child in April. In addition to teaching voice lessons outside of Savannah Theatre, she has considered revisiting her pre-medicine degree.
She began auditions right out of college, planning to wait a year before entering medical school, but acting opportunities kept coming up.
"I think now at this point, I could definitely do it," she says. "But I have four kids, and I'm older. Plus, I love this," she says, gesturing around her.
She and husband Bill didn't expect to make a life here, but Savannah is now home.
"When (producer) Mike Meece said, 'I want to do kind of a long-term thing in Savannah,' we thought that sounded great," Stelzer says. "By long-term, we thought he meant a year, because in entertainment, you just gig and you move so much, and you either tour or move every three, four to six months. But we love Savannah, so we've just tried to make a life here."
It's been an unexpectedly good move for many of the cast members.
"I never worked anywhere that is more understanding about the importance of family time," says musical director and pianist Charlie Ancheta. He was musical director of The American Music Theatre in Lancaster, Pa., before joining the Savannah Theatre and is a native of Charleston, S.C.
His move to Savannah in 2009 was "a homecoming, in a way," he says.
"After my first son was born, I thought, 'I need a change of pace. I need to move someplace where the pace is just a little bit slower.' I felt like I was working all the time, writing all the arrangements and shows. Now I'm here, I get to play, I get to direct and I'm doing what I've been doing all my life."
"If I stop to think about it at all, really, what do I have to complain about?" adds Holley, a Savannah native. "It's hard to call a job ... I dance around playing guitar, I sing songs for people and they sing along, and I wouldn't have it any other way."